It’s a timely message for February’s American Heart Month: Pets can be good for your heart and your overall health.
You probably always knew that at some level.
So exactly what is it that our beloved companions do to make us healthier?
Of course there’s that good feeling we get when we smile and laugh at their antics. It’s been suggested that those actions boost our immune system, lower our blood sugar levels, and help us relax and sleep.
But there’s more. A search through online reports of scientific studies finds that our pets affect our health in many ways. Among other benefits, pets may:
- Lower risk of heart attack death. In a study of more than 4,000 cat owners over 10 years, cat owners had a lower rate of dying from heart attacks and strokes compared to those who did not own cats. The study at the Minnesota Stroke Institute at the University of Minnesota found that while some effect was expected, the 30 percent reduction in heart attack risk discovered was surprising.
- Help reduce cardiovascular risk. While all pets require some sort of tending—which means you have to get up off the couch and move—dog ownership in particular may help reduce cardiovascular risk. In a study of more than 5,200 adults cited by the American Heart Association, dog owners engaged in more walking and physical activity than non-dog owners and were 54 percent more likely to get the recommended level of physical activity.
- Improve heart disease survival chances. A study in the American Journal of Cardiology revealed that pet ownership was associated with increased survival in 424 patients with coronary artery disease. The Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial looked at factors involved in the one-year survival of those who had suffered a heart attack. The data suggested that dog owners are significantly less likely to die within one year than those who did not own dogs. Social support from humans also was a significant predictor of survival.
- Lower heart rate and blood pressure. A report published in Psychosomatic Medicine revealed that people with pets had significantly lower heart rate and blood pressure levels during a study of psychological and physical stress. The study involved 240 married couples. Half owned a pet.
- Reduce allergy and asthma risks. Children's risk for developing allergies and asthma is reduced when they are exposed in early infancy to a dog in the household. Researchers found that when mice were exposed to dust from houses with indoor/outdoor dogs, the community of microbes in their gut reshaped. The mice also had a less reactive immune response to common allergens. The study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the composition and function of microbes in the gut influence immune reactions.
- Help in managing chronic illness. A study at the University of Manchester in the U.K. suggests that pets have unique qualities and are not simply substitutes for human relationships in the management of long-term illnesses. Pets contributed mostly to managing emotions and enhancing a sense of self identity in the 300 participants with diabetes or chronic heart disease.
- Provide social support. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that pets can serve as important sources of social support, providing many positive psychological and physical benefits for their owners. Researchers found that pet owners fared better on several measures. Support from pets also complemented rather than competed with human sources.
- Help keep us calm when life gets tense. Researchers studying 48 hypertensive New York City stockbrokers found that while ACE inhibitors can keep high blood pressure under control if life is running smoothly, they don't prevent it from rising when things get tense. However, University of Buffalo researchers found that in 24 participants selected at random to add a dog or cat to their treatment regimen, the cardiovascular measures remained significantly more stable during stressful situations than in the non-pet-owning participants who served as controls.
In other words, what you felt might be true is! A pet is good medicine in so many ways.
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